This is my first holiday with my food allergies. I would like to think I’m doing well, but it’s definitely a war and there are a lot of casualties, some of them visible and some of them silent. This post is my way of coping with some things that have been hard about my journey, and it’s dedicated to my fellow food allergy sufferers: I hear you, I feel for you, and I’d like to have you over for a meal.
While I’ve attempted to be empathetic to my friends with allergies over the years, I can tell you there’s no substitute for comprehension than living the life of one who cannot eat the food the rest of the world enjoys. It’s not the same as being vegan or vegetarian or even being a picky eater. There is absolutely no substitute in the world for the strange, lonely, frustrating place that is looking at a menu or a holiday buffet and not choosing to refrain but being disallowed by your body–not your mind–from partaking. It’s weird and not at all fun to be in a store or restaurant full of food and watch it narrow or disappear before you, to be hungry and not be able to eat–and have others blithely eating all around you with maybe a “oh gosh, sorry” before chowing down. It’s a bitch, a serious fucking bitch and a wound that only those of us riding the same nasty wave can truly comprehend. I tend to forget how very much energy I expend on thinking ahead to make sure I can eat until I am lucky enough to be somewhere that I can eat without issue. Quite often when I find those rare moments, I cry in relief, and that’s not overstated even a little.
I suspect this will get better, as I’m only six months on (though I’ve been playing with food restrictions for over a year), but I can tell you the holidays are so bad I’m considering how to avoid the whole scenario in the future. Holiday events are by their nature full of joy and fuckery like no other occasion can manage: everyone is trying to rope in nostalgia, everyone is over-booked and stressed to the nines, and we tend to gather with people we don’t see that often and aren’t up-to-speed with in a way that would make the whole show easier if we were better connected. Add food to the mix and you might as well start drinking.
What I’ve learned is best is to approach each event carefully and pragmatically and do a lot of heart-hardening. I attend holiday parties full and telling myself I don’t want or need anything, actively disassociating my brain from the part that wants to slide into that comfy holiday feeling and eat and enjoy and maybe even feel a bit sick afterward from indulging in the sheer pleasure that is food. Occasionally I have moments where I think very dumb things like “surely one cookie won’t hurt” or “I bet I can tolerate just a little of milk,” but my wingman and wing-gal step in pretty fast and remind me of how very, very badly I can feel and have felt up until the past four or five months, how far I have yet to go, how I’m still getting what my body views as poison out of my system. Forearmed is best, I’ve found. But it’s lonely.
There’s a level of discussion one can have with friends and family about how to include me, but it’s always a land mine and most of the time leaves me feeling even lonelier with a few very notable exceptions. It helps a little that I know no one means to have things end that way, but the result is very, very lonely and sad and angering in a way that I’m still working on how to sort out. People get very emotional very fast about food, and again, unless you’re walking this fun little walk, it’s impossible to understand how many little knives crop up in something as simple as eating. Every cupcake, every grilled cheese sandwich is an opportunity to mourn; holiday gatherings are full-on funerals, ones where most people are having a party. It’s weird, and it sucks, and I bet while it gets easier it’s also never quite the same.
I have, however, had one significant victory this Christmas: I rescued my fudgy bonbons.
For the past eleven years, I’ve made a huge swath of Christmas cookies. They are ubiquitous at any gathering I host or attend, and all Anna’s teachers get a treat sack full, as do her lesson instructors and our neighbors. I spend quite a bit of money and many, many hours to make them, and in the past they have always been one of my joys of the season.
This year, of course, was different. One of my favorite holiday traditions had become a full-on exercise in feeling left out, this time by my own hand. I made it my misison to find vegan replacements. I did easily for all but one: fudgy bonbons. Full of sweetened condensed milk, wrapped around Hershey kisses and drizzled in white chocolate–I had a hard row to hoe on this one. I did it, though: I learned how to make vegan sweetened condensed milk, replaced the kisses with vegan chocolate chunks, and replaced the white chocolate (you cannot, cannot make that vegan) with mint chocolate and candy cane pieces. They are nearly identical to the original and possibly more delicious.
There are less cookies this year, and yet they were even more expensive. They took more time and came with a great deal of anxiety: would they turn out? Would they be as good? By and large they’ve been better and tastier, as I don’t get to use cheap waxy chocolate for anything but must use high quality dark chocolates and richer, more delectable everything. I’m not giving as many away, not per gift nor to as many people. But I still did my cookies, and I can eat them.
So far Dan and Anna have declared them as good if not better too, which is heartening, but they are as ever my greatest allies in the weird allergy food war. I’m ready for comments from people about how a favorite is different or missing, and I also still have all the old recipes for someone else who would like to make ten dozen cookies with as many eggs and sticks of butter as is desired in my place.
I’m dead serious too about wanting to have a food allergen party. Because I know everything I deal with is a minor shard of what the gluten-free people must endure. I don’t have to be GF, but I take a perhaps odd but intense pleasure from providing gluten-free meals for my friends who require them. It becomes a kind of quest: even when it costs me double or triple what it would to make something, even when it is very hard, I want to do it, perhaps more so. It’s a weird karmic payback or pay it forward, because yes, if you want to tell me you love me? Make an effort to include me in food. To shun me hurts more than I can explain, but to include me makes me so grateful I often can’t express how much it means to me. Like when my friends Mary and Mike not only insisted in getting me a special meal at their wedding–at their wedding–but they arranged for a special Heidi-friendly dessert and then came over to be sure I received it. I didn’t cry, but it was because I swallowed like hell. I will remember those cookies and that effort forever.
You know what, non-allergen people? You have a lot of people who need that kind of attention in your life. Most of them don’t tell you about it because it truly is easier to suffer quietly than try to get people to understand. But food is a big fucking deal. If you don’t have an allergy, cherish that. If you do? Let’s get together and eat. Copiously.
In closing: vegan fudgy bonbons. Because a world without them was a void that needed filling.
- 2 cups semisweet vegan chocolate (chips or chunks or a brick, whatever you can find, as you’ll be melting this)
- 1/4 cup + 1 tsp Earth Balance shortening
- 1 cup vegan sweetened condensed milk (see recipe here or find one you like)
- 2 cups flour (I bet you could use a fine GF one for this. I’ll try to play.)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 oz vegan mint chocolate
- 12 oz vegan dark chocolate (you need chunks: I used Enjoy Life mega chunks, but anything you can coax into a clump of kiss-like shapes will work)
- Parchment paper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
Prepare your condensed milk: this will take some time, so be ready for that. I found patience and Netflix on my phone were essential for the process.
In a medium saucepan (double boiler if you’re fancy, microwave if you’re lazy), combine chocolate chips and 1/4 cup shortening. Cook over low heat, stirring until melted. Remove from heat and stir in the condensed milk. Add the flour and vanilla; stir until well blended.
Take walnut-sized balls of dough, roll them into a ball and insert a roughly “kiss-sized” equivalent of dark chocolate. I used 3 whole chunks of Enjoy Life Mega Chunk Semi-Sweet Chocolate, but anything will do as it will conceal upon baking. Shove the chocolate inside, seal it in the dough, and place it on a baking sheet about one inch apart. They won’t expand so you can get pretty dense on this sheet.
Bake for 6 to 8 minutes or until dough is no longer shiny.
Using the top of a double boiler or microwave, melt the 3 oz mint chocolate and 1 tsp shortening together. Stir to blend, then drizzle a thumbnail sized portion on the top of each cookie. I clump the cookies together on parchment paper and drizzle with a spoon en masse, but if you want to take care and make them pretty, go individual. You may need more chocolate for this method, however. Before chocolate cools, add crushed candy canes on top for contrast, garnish and extra texture.
Protip: pop these beauties in the microwave for five seconds to get a touch of melty goodness before eating, though I’ve found the vegan version to be more succulent and melty naturally. Take that, you damn eggs and cows.